Two scoring droughts for the Nittany Lions in both the first and second halves against Illinois led to a 60-55 loss Sunday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center for Penn State.
Senior point guard Tim Frazier, moments removed from grabbing the school's all-time assists mark following an 11-point, 2-assist performance, summed up the letdown succinctly.
"We just missed shots," he said. "They played defense the way coach had them playing defense, but we just missed shots. We gotta continue to fight and get stops, even when we can't make shots."
Specifically, the Nittany Lions connected on just 38.2 percent of their shots for the game, only 27.8 percent of their 18 3-point attempts, hitting just five, and failing to convert on two key front-ends of key free throw opportunities down the stretch.
The first drought came in the first half, though, a 9-minute stretch in which the Nittany Lions (12-12 overall, 3-8 Big Ten) could only muster 4 points, and saw a 9-point advantage evaporate into a 9-point deficit. Only a 9-0 Penn State run to close out the final 2:51 evened things up at the half.
The second, and arguably more important offensive letdown, struck in the second half of the second half.
Facing an Illinois defense (14-10, 3-8) cutting off the lanes, the Nittany Lions missed eight straight field goal attempts and a free throw spanning from the 9-minute mark down to a made D.J. Newbill free throw with just 51 seconds left to play. Somehow, holding a 3-point lead at the start of the drought, Newbill's second free throw had an opportunity to tie the game, but clanked off the front of the rim.
Looking to get to the foul line with his team's shooting off the mark, Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers credited his opponent's defensive effort while acknowledging his own team's poor execution.
"I thought they did a really good job of packing it in and they got some timely blocks. And when we did get the fouls, we gotta make free throws. It's a long time not to score," he said. "We were in the 1-and-1, I wanted us to drive the ball. I thought we took a couple of ill-advised threes late in the game where I'd like to see us put it inside or drive it. They were still good threes. I mean, they were open and we just didn't make a shot.
"Let's give them credit. Their defense was terrific on Tim and D.J. toward the end," he added, citing Illinois' freshman Kendrick Nunn's key 3-pointer on the baseline with just 22 seconds left to play that effectively sealed the win for the Illini. "They hit the big shots, they made the winning plays and the big shots when they needed to make them. That was a desperate team we played. That was a battle. That was a flat-out battle, two teams that were scratching and clawing, and it's unfortunate that one team has to win and obviously it wasn't us."
Though Newbill led the team with 19 points on a strong 7-of-12 shooting performance, the Nittany Lions again failed to find a third scorer reaching double-figures for the game.
Against an opponent determined to stop his two best scorers, Chambers acknowledged the necessity of simply connecting on the one or two open shots that could have changed the game's outcome.
"We need somebody to stretch it. Again, they're all sitting in the paint and we need somebody to make an open shot. Somebody has gotta hit a jump shot," he said. "I thought we had open ones. I thought we had good open ones. Other than some of those turnovers under the eight minute media timeout there, which always leads to positive plays for the opponent, we gotta knock down some shots.
"You're home, so you think you're going to hit a couple, and it just didn't bounce our way today."